Isolation and God’s Love

Fireflies in a lantern as the sun goes down; lighting our way, like a god who is always with us

We Need One Another

As far as I know, none of my friends or colleagues have contracted the coronavirus, but a number of them are getting sick with other ailments, whether chronic disorders or terminal diseases. I suppose it’s because I’m getting older, so my friends are aging, as well. Our bodies were designed to fall apart, and they do. Decay and death will happen to us all.

But our physical vulnerability rarely feels real until we receive a diagnosis that shatters the comfortable control of our world. Then we face a grief and anxiety. Often, we can find peace on the other side, but first we must go through the pain. This can be a lonely process.

Especially now, with the coronavirus forcing us to continue isolating, we can feel alone in our suffering. Healing, whether physical or spiritual, can seem a long way off.

That’s because to heal, we need one another. Doctors, nurses, and technicians all have a role to play in easing our bodies into as much health as is possible for us at this time. Counselors and spiritual guides can help us ease the anxiety in our minds and hearts. Friends and family help sustain our courage. Yet if no one is there for us, we can falter. Our loneliness can become overwhelming; our sadness can descend into despair.

When we die, we also benefit from the presence of others. No one can go with us on the journey beyond this world, of course, so there’s a loneliness there, too. Yet some professionals midwife souls into that unknown eternity, and the dying often seem to appreciate having loved ones around them.

A Love that Won’t Let Go

We might be surrounded by people we love, but, as one of our community’s members pointed out, “we can certainly feel that we’re alone even if we’re not.” This is especially true when staff and visitors swarm in and out of our rooms, offering cheer and encouragement, perhaps, but no sustained attention, no peaceful nurturing, or when people condemn us as sinners or judge us as weak, or when we feel misunderstood rather than heard and known, our loneliness can be powerful.

But not everyone who is in this situation, whether physically alone or ignored by distracted or insensitive professionals and friends, feels alone or lonely. As another member commented, “I neglected to include the very real possibility that we are never alone.”

Echoing his thoughts, a third member paraphrased theologian James Luther Adams, suggesting that “we are held in a love that will never let us go.”

Fireflies in a lantern as the sun goes down; lighting our way, like a god who is always with us

Possessed by God

It turns out that isn’t exactly what Adams said. Rather than being “held” by a love that won’t let go of us, he wrote that we were “possessed by” such a love. To understand the difference between being held and possessed, it might help to have some context.

Writing during the latter part of the twentieth century, Adams was explaining that liberalism needed to reclaim “its own prophetic genius.” He believed liberals needed to proclaim “both the judgment and the love of God.”

God’s love isn’t simple. We experience good and bad, life and death, hope and fear. In our efforts to focus on love, we sometimes forget the ugliness of the world. We become complacent, apathetic. Adams called on us, instead, to commit to justice. This would require a powerful conversion. For us to be converted in this way, we must allow ourselves to be possessed by God’s love.

Such possession is not a sweet comfort. It’s not like being nestled safely in a mother’s arms. Being possessed by God means being guided by a deity who compels us to act for love and justice, who expects our obedience, and who will stand with us as we do what we are called to do. This God will never go away. Once God possesses us, God “will not let us go.” [1]

As we move and breathe and have our being in this divine essence, and as a love larger and grander than any we can know claims us, we become possessed. We become part of God’s love. One with this divine power, we become God’s instrument, God’s hands, and God’s love.

In this way, we cease being alone and become one with all that is holy.

Julian of Norwich and God’s Love

This oneness is similar to the union with God that Julian of Norwich wrote about. A fourteenth-century hermit, she spent most of her life isolated in a room attached to a church. She wrote about a God who holds us.

“In his love he wraps and holds us,” Julian wrote in her book Revelations of Divine Love. “He enfolds us for love, and he will never let us go.” Thus held by the divine, we are safe, even in “weal or woe.” In the end, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Yet we do not always feel this love, nor do we always feel safe. According to Julian, this isn’t because God ceases to be with us, nor to hold us. Rather, it is because we withdraw from God. She put it this way: “When I am distant towards him through sin, despair or sloth, then I leave my Lord to remain alone, inasmuch as he is in me.” [2]

So even if there is a God within, a Creator and Sustainer, a being to be known and touched by us, we don’t always realize it. At times, we create a division from this divine being through our addictions. We lust after false idols, those shiny objects of the world that seduce us into believing that by owning them we will be made whole. Sometimes we descend into a depression that devours us, any thoughts of God swallowed up by our despair. Or we succumb to distractions or resistances. Having turned our back on God, we tumble into loneliness. God may still be there, but we cannot feel the divine presence. We might not be alone, but we feel as if we were. God is gone. We cannot find that higher, wiser, more enlightened part of ourselves. Wholeness of spirit seems like a distant dream.

Fireflies in a lantern as the sun goes down; lighting our way, like a god who is always with us

God as “Being Itself”

Even so, all is not lost. Speaking of the theology of Paul Tillich, Adams points out that, though we often feel estranged from God, we aren’t really separated from that power. We can’t be, for God lies both within and outside us. God’s essence is everywhere, is everything. So we might feel alone. We might act as if we were alone. But we aren’t. Our disengagement from God is an illusion, for nothing can truly detach itself from what Tillich called “the ground of all being.” “God must be understood as being itself,” he wrote. [3] Thus everything that exists, that is being, is also God.

How can we have a relationship with a god that is one with us? Can we have a relationship with ourselves?

Why not? Do we not speak within our own mind? Are there not numerous aspects to our being, parts that know more and see more and understand how to be gracious and nurturing? What if that frightened, empty, lonely part of ourselves engaged with our higher selves, the wise, sensitive part of us that knows more than the rest of us can ever imagine? Maybe then we wouldn’t feel so alone.

Reconciling with God

If we can have a relationship with our own soul, surely we can have one with God. As Tillich tells it, we cannot be separated from that ground of godly being. We are one with it. Therefore, it remains ready and available, waiting for us to reconcile with it. [4]

But how do we reconcile with that loving force? How do we remember we are not alone and reach out? What can we do to return to a love that enfolds us and never lets us go? How do we connect with Tillich’s “ground of being” or Julian’s God who keeps us safe no matter what, especially now when we are feeling the lack of touch and camaraderie?

Recently, I read that the governing board of a Unitarian Universalist church, weary of talking about opening only to decide they couldn’t do so yet, voted to remain online until May of 2021.

Really? Will this social isolating continue for another year? We don’t know. So somehow we must figure out a way to stay sane, regardless.

Spiritual Connections that Heal

Every week, I lead a spirituality group on the addiction unit at the hospital called Finding Peace. We focus on creating spiritual connections that can nurture a sense of peace within us. These connections include ones we have with ourselves, with loved ones, with strangers, with nature, with the cosmos, and with God. Intimacy brings healing. Healthy relationships enhance our sense of worth, meaning, purpose, and contentment.

If these connections help us heal, then one of the most important things we can do right now is build and sustain relationships. Since our relationships with other people may be limited, though hopefully not non-existent as they were with Julian of Norwich, we need something else to reach out to, as well. We need a god. How do we turn back toward some kind of god? How do we open to that being’s touch?

Practices for Stillness

Spiritual practices can help, such as prayer and meditation, mindfulness, chanting, and praising the holy through dance, song, or poetry. We can read books about love, about spiritual growth, about recovery, forgiveness, empathy, and compassion. Journaling helps. So do gardening, walking along the beach, cooking, laughing, dancing, and hiking. We can focus on recovery, love the frightened and desperate parts of ourselves, learn to sit with discomfort, and seek calm in the face of crisis.

Whatever we do to return to the center of our being, to ground ourselves in the here and now, to recognize and treat gently our fears and shortcomings, can help us remember who we really are and discover the god within.

Julian spent much of her life locked in a room, alone. Although she could hear sounds of activity on the streets outside her cell, she did not take part in city life. Instead, she devoted herself to prayer and meditation. Like many mystics before and since, she sought God in stillness.

God’s Love and Forgiveness

Not all of us have the capacity to be mystics. Some of us are more or less inclined toward inner quiet. But it is in that place where we find God. Isolating ourselves can bore us to tears or fill us with despair. It can also provide us an opportunity to enhance our spiritual practices so we can better experience the sacred touch of the divine.

According to Julian, in the end, all will be well. Hers is a Universalist theology that emphasizes God’s love and eternal forgiveness. For her, this union with the divine took place in isolation, in a private relationship she had with her god. This may be a helpful image for our time.

For Adams, however, God’s love is not only individual, but also communal. We experience God’s love, allow ourselves to be filled by that love, so we can help usher in the “reign of God,” which he defines as a “sustaining, commanding, transforming reality,” a “reign of love.” This love, he adds, both fulfills the call for justice and goes beyond it. God’s love wants the best for all of us. All of us.

Yet, in the end, Adams points out, we don’t create this love ourselves, nor is it “at our disposal.” This love is larger than we are, both more wonderful and more terrible. It possesses us, claims us, “seizes us and transforms us, bringing us into a new kind of community that provides new channels for love.” [5]

From Isolation to Social Transformation

Even though we are isolated, God’s love exists for a reason: to help transform society. Julian, who barely spoke to anyone while she was alive, wrote a book that has influenced generations of Christians and spiritual seekers. In this way, she grew to be larger than her isolation, touching countless lives, and those lives touched others. This is one way to change society. If we take this time now, while isolated by the coronavirus, while less distracted by parties and the busyness of our lives, to learn to sit quietly with discomfort and to create beauty out of the broken pieces of our heart and spirit, we may emerge from our isolation with a patient and gentle courage. From this peaceful, calm place, we can then start to build the “new kind of community” that honors every person’s dignity, treats the earth respectfully, is kind to the poor and the vulnerable, and spreads love.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” wrote Julian. And it will be that way not just because God seeks justice, but because we do, as well. Before we can adequately do that, however, we must learn to love. Part of learning to love is learning to be still so we can feel the divine within ourselves.

Today, many of us are scared and bored. We feel emotionally unstable. Meditation, prayer, and service can help us cope. In the quiet places, in the connections we make with the holy, we will find the love that transforms. If we let it transform us, we will be able to transform the world.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Adams, James Luther,The Essential James Luther Adams, ed. George Kimmich Beach, Boston: Skinner House, 1998, 78.
  2. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, (Ch. 80, 336), quoted in Gilchrist, Jay, “Unfolding Enfolding Love in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations,” 14th Century English Mystics Newsletter,” June 1983, Vol. 9, No. 2 (June 1983), pp. 67-88, http://www.jstor.com/stable/20716431.
  3. Systematic Theology, Vol. I, 240- quoted by Boston Collaborative Encycolpedia of Western Theology, “Paul Tillich (1886-1965),” http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/tillich.htm.
  4. Adams, Examined Faith, 181.
  5. Adams, James Luther,The Essential James Luther Adams, ed. George Kimmich Beach, Boston: Skinner House, 1998, 26.

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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